Striking Up

The subway draws into Cowcaddens. The brakes make the sound of bagpipes striking up, the a dhuine dhuine in Gaelic, Central Belt Shuffler is given to understand.*

I lift my head at the noise of the brakes, and remember that this is the subway stop for the National Piping Centre. Rather unexpectedly, I once was involved in a project with the NPC’s ELearning Hub where – as initial website analytics showed – online piping classes where of most interest to (in order) individuals in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Belgium, the Isle of Man, Germany, Ireland, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands.

Even a couple of stops from home, the world expands at the sound of the brakes…

*alternative, and not always entirely polite, suggestions for this sound from friends included ‘annoying’, ‘the tuneless racket before the tuneless racket’, ‘gasping, heaving, moaning’, and Central Belt Shuffler’s own contribution, ‘an elephant giving birth’.

Piper Jam

It’s been a season of disrupted Central Belt Shuffling.


Kelvinbridge Underground Overground Station

Glasgow’s Queen Street tunnel has just reopened after several months’ of closure, which lengthened journeys to the north and east. For Central Belt Shuffler, this timing has been rather fortunate, as research leave has meant less need for frequent shuffling, and hence fewer, longer journeys than might otherwise have been necessary.

But while the trains are working again, with the works completed in time for Edinburgh festival trips, Glasgow’s subway remains closed for an extended period. There are replacement buses (overground undergrounds, which remind Central Belt Shuffler of a certain Wombling song).

The service is relatively good, and cheaper and faster than the normal buses. But the journey is of course subject to other street traffic.

Today, heading into the city centre, my replacement subway bus was held up by hundreds of marching pipers, part of the city’s Piping Live festival. Well, I suppose as jams go it offers authentic local colour (and sound).

(Oh, and here’s that Womble song. Because you can’t have enough sousaphones.)

The IndyRef Shuffle

It’s September, and so the regular Central Belt Shuffle starts once more. The leaves on this fine early Autumn day are turning golden, and gently crunch under my bike wheels.

The morning commute, flask in hand, is joined by my colleague Dr A. We discuss the possibilities not of Scottish Independence, but Scottish Renaissance Studies, or rather, Renaissance Studies in Scotland. I cast my mind to Rona Munro’s James Plays, the third of which – with its triumphant casting of Sofie Grabol (aka The Killing’s Sarah Lund) as James III’s Danish wife – I’d seen in August during the festival shuffle period. The play included a direct address to the audience (as well as her court and country) from Grabol. ‘Who,’ she asks, ‘would want the job of ruling Scotland?’ And, even more provocatively, ‘You know the problem with you lot? You’ve got fuck-all except attitude.’ As Michael Billington put it in his review, ‘Even Alistair Darling wouldn’t dare to go that far.’

And as tomorrow the three leaders of the Westminster parties shuffle northwards in one last ditch attempt to woo us, at last fully cognisant that not only might there be something to lose, but that it is (as the polls are telling us) a real possibility, I look out the window on the shuffle home for signs of the debate. I don’t see any large Yes or Nos emblazoned on the landscape (though there is at least one hillside near Stirling showing its political affiliations), and my fellow travellers seem much the same as ever – reading, staring into space, sleeping, yawning, wishing there were a drinks trolley on the train, chatting. But change is coming, very fast, whichever way the vote goes – as this, perhaps one of the most perceptive (and chilling, in its grasp of realpolitik) of the pieces I’ve yet read on the referendum and its aftermath – lays out.

Home from home

There’ve been no tales of shuffling for a while, as Central Belt Shuffler has been on tour again.

But it was impossible to resist this sneak shot on the Berlin U6 (pronounced You-Sex, much to the amusement of any innuendo-minded Brit).

Berlin home from home?

Being an old-fashioned kind of policeman…

A crowded evening train home (in contrast to some trains plying this route).

An elderly gentleman and lady are comparing notes on city vs. country living, car-driving and age. Central Belt Shuffler’s ears prick up:

Elderly gentleman: ‘An old retired man hadn’t driven for 12 years. He got in his car, and started to drive the wrong way down a one-way street. A policeman recognised the driver, and flagged the car down to stop. “This is a one-way street.” “Constable, it’s just one way that I’m going, so clear the street.” [A dismissive flick of the wrist illustrates the anecdote.] Being an old-fashioned kind of policeman, he let him on his way, and then phoned the man’s family.’


Elderly lady: ‘My son is a research fellow in nanotechnology’.

Elderly gentleman: ‘Oh!’ (In a way that indicates he knows exactly what that means.) Then, ‘Now, you’ll have to put me right on that.’

Elderly lady: ‘That’s very very wee.’

Elderly gentleman: ‘I know!’

Elderly lady: ‘He works with diamonds. I can’t help but boast about him sometimes.’


Elderly gentleman: ‘He was born with a chip on his shoulder. All of them are after a certain time.’

Elderly lady: ‘I’ve got an iPad now. I use it for email and so on. I saw a 3-year-old the other day, swiping.’

Elderly gentleman: ‘They’re implanted.’

Elderly lady: ‘But I don’t use it for my bank account details. I don’t trust it. They can hack into your account.’

Elderly gentleman: ‘When they phone up and ask you to prove who you are by answering questions. Who are _you_?, I want to know.’

Elderly lady: ‘I don’t believe in those three questions. We don’t need computers.’

Elderly gentleman: ‘Well, I don’t. But the world does.’

Elderly lady goes to toilet.

Elderly gentleman turns to me: ‘How can you tell someone’s age in a lift?’

Me: ‘Enlighten me.’

Elderly gentleman, showing his thumb and then his index finger: ‘Whether they use this, or this.’ He points to my phone, on which (somewhat shamefacedly), I have been noting down their conversation with lightning thumb action.

Me (laughing): ‘Oh, I thought that was going to be a joke.’

Elderly gentleman: ‘Well, it’s quite funny.’


Me (looking up from my copy of The Bookseller): ‘Did you know that the take-up of ebooks is stronger in rural Scotland than anywhere else in the whole of the UK?’

Elderly gentleman: ‘Well, that’s not surprising. That goes back to John Knox.’

From thence on, the conversation skips by the smell of books, the merits of publishing church materials on Lulu, broad-based and specialised undergraduate education, teacher training for university lecturers, whether the grace of God is a noun, differing types of Spanish in the Peruvian jungle and Lima, how to stop your five-year-old swearing in Spanish (use ‘Ballachulish’ instead), The Ballachulish ferry/bridge, the Skye ferry/bridge, the new Forth road bridge/bring back the ferry, cycling in the city, and the possibility of a backy to the West End for the elderly lady, her suitcase and stick.

We parted at Queen Street.

Elderly lady: ‘This is why I like travelling on the train.’

Me too.

‘I’m half French, will that be a problem?’

GiniCentral Belt Shuffler, as you may or may not have gathered from the masthead of this blog, is half French and thus – naturellement – is partial to Orangina (even keener on Gini, but that’s less widely distributed. Odd, given that the legendary Serge Gainsbourg wrote an advertising jingle for it, and it’s the ‘hottest cold drink’, according to OranginaSchweppes’ own marketing copy).

So imagine the scenario, one evening, as Central Belt Shuffler stands on the platform awaiting the homeward train. It’s a warm evening, and I’m quenching my post-cycling thirst with Orangina. I look down the platform, and note several fellow passengers also holding orange-coloured fizzy drinks. Irn-Bru.

Central Belt Shuffler might never quite fit the norm – but at least it’s the right colour?

Weapon of War

Travelling by bike and train has its charms. And its occasional challenges.

Particularly when catching a Friday evening train some hours into its journey south from Aberdeen.

Not long started on the Central Belt Shuffle, and boarding a busy train one evening, I had to ask someone to get up from a tip-up seat by the bike storage area so I could get my bike in. The two of us were then standing for the rest of the journey.

Another, prematurely elderly, tin-drinking man took offence. He started snarling at me, if you can both slur and snarl. I’ve no idea what he was saying, and smiled as best I could.

Five or so minutes later, out came a small set of pipes, with black* velvet bag.

I’d heard that bagpipes were a weapon of war. In a packed train carriage, with 20 minutes journey-time remaining, that was confirmed.

*This post was previously entitled The Black Piper, until my PC-checker suggested I might change it to avoid any confusion. Good call, Miss J.